Bostridge/Connolly/Drake/Carducci Quartet review – classy and compelling

The catalogue of music for voice, piano and string quartet is not large, and seems mainly to consist of rearrangements. Yet in this Barbican concert with the tenor Ian Bostridge and mezzo Sarah Connolly, along with the pianist Julius Drake and the Carducci Quartet, any feeling of being stuck on a musical byway fell away and one wondered why more composers have not written for this interesting and rewarding combination.

Vaughan Williams’s song cycle On Wenlock Edge, his 1909 setting of six of AE Housman’s A Shropshire Lad poems, is one of the few pieces originally written for such forces. The writing owes much to the composer’s studies with Ravel and makes a compelling case, exploiting the possibilities of its fast-changing mix of string textures, underpinned with the sonorousness of the piano, particularly effective in On Bredon Hill and well brought out by Drake’s authoritative touch.

In Bostridge it also had an interpreter whose attention to the detail and structure of Housman’s melancholy texts was exemplary, even though some of this tenor’s sound will always divide opinion. You really could hear the horses’ harness jingle in Is My Team Ploughing, but Bostridge ensured there was no mistaking the underlying bleakness and, in the final song Clun, the bitterness of the cycle.

Ernest Chausson’s Poème de l’Amour et de la Mer sets overwrought and inferior verses by Maurice Bouchor. Originally written for a lush post-Wagnerian orchestra, it was expertly performed by Connolly, Drake and the Carduccis in a fine new arrangement by Franck Villard, which somehow manages to maintain the compelling surge of the original. Emma Denton stood out with some fine cello solos, but it was Connolly’s vocal bloom and control, especially evident as she lingered over the poet’s invocation of eternal oblivion, that crowned the performance.

An equally classy encore, in the shape of Fauré’s perfumed duet Pleurs d’Or, in an arrangement by Iain Farrington, brought all the performers and all the elements of a thoroughly rewarding evening elegantly together.

• Our reviewer watched the live stream of this concert.